Natalie Curtis Burlin Center for American Culture Studies


  1. Introduction

  2. Preserving Indian Culture

  3. Angel DeCora and Indian Art

  4. Arizona With Roosevelt

  5. Busoni's Indian Fantasy

  6. African-
    American Music

  7. Defending American Folk Music

  8. Natalie's Legacy

  9. Endnotes

  10. Readings

Natalie Curtis Burlin (1875-1921):
A Pioneer in the Study
of American Minority Cultures
by Alfred R. Bredenberg


 In 1903, a young musician from New York City set out for the American West on what she called her "self-appointed task of recording native songs."1 During the next 18 years up to her tragic death in Paris in 1921, Natalie Curtis (married to artist Paul Burlin in 1917) would become one of the best-known authorities of her time on American Indian art and culture.  Photo of Natalie Curtis in Southwestern garb and Indian beads

Her 1907 classic, The Indians' Book, a groundbreaking popular work, was acclaimed throughout the U.S. and internationally. The Indians' Book, arguably the most enduring work on Indian culture, and especially music, is still in print after more than 80 years. Charles Hamm calls The Indians' Book "... the most comprehensive collection of Indian songs to appear to that point."2

Curtis went on to carry out important studies of African-American and African music and culture. She worked as an advocate of rights and education for Indians and black Americans. Curtis publicly challenged "the everlasting monopoly of the white race"3 and promoted a revolutionary point of view -- recognizing the value of multiple American cultures. In 1926, Hampton Institute (now Hampton University, Hampton, Virginia) dedicated a memorial "In Memory of Natalie Curtis -- Beloved by many of different race and color -- 1875-1921."4

Though Curtis was very productive and carried out work of enduring impact, little is known about her life. As a woman with little formal education, she might not have been viewed as a legitimate scholar in her time. Because of her early death, she never had the opportunity to pull her works together and give closure to her career. Then, too, Curtis wasn't one to seek prominence, but adopted a self-effacing attitude. For example, in The Indians' Book, she insisted that the book was an offering of the Indians and that she was only the recorder.

Note: This article originally appeared in Connecticut Review of Spring 1994.



Copyright 2002-2004, Alfred R. Bredenberg